HC Deb 03 May 2000 vol 349 cc45-65WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Clelland.]

9.30 am
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

This is the first time that I have been successful in the ballot for Westminster Hall and I am delighted to initiate a debate on a subject that is important for not only my constituents, but the general population. I regret that the venue is Westminster Hall and not the main Chamber, and I hope that the relevance of what we have to say today will not be lost.

The more cynical amongst us might think that Westminster Hall, which is hidden away from the glare of publicity, has been provided as an escape valve to allow those Back Benchers who are boiling away with frustration to let off steam quietly and unobserved. I also issue a plea to the Minister to hold the annual debate on policing in London, which is overdue. There are serious questions on that issue to which the many hon. Members who represent London constituencies want answers.

The subject of police numbers is fundamental and much in the news. Crime is rising and that is of great concern to all of us. On a day when the bastion of Labour support, The Mirror, urges its readers to vote Conservative, the Government would do well to listen to the increasingly loud demands for action, not words, and for an end to the intolerable amount of spin emerging from the Government.

I shall begin with some general observations and then turn to the crisis in the Metropolitan police, particularly the Hillingdon division, which affects my constituency. Police numbers are falling. Between 31 March 1997—I acknowledge that that was a couple of months before the Government came in—and 31 March 2000, the total number of officers in England and Wales fell by 2,358, which represents a decrease of 1.85 per cent. Police funding is falling. The settlement for 2000–01 constitutes a small increase of £202.6 million, but police funding in real terms has fallen since 1997.

Crime is rising under the Government. Between March 1997 and March 1999, recorded crime fell from 4,545,337 to 4,481,817 incidents: a fall of 1.4 per cent. However, in the year to September 1999, the total of reported offences was 5,234,211, an increase of 2.2 per cent. on the previous year's figure.

I am not a great one for bandying such statistics around because we all know that figures can be used to give different results. However, it is worth pointing out that, under the previous Conservative Government, the total strength of the force increased by almost 15,000 between March 1979 and March 1997—an increase of 14 per cent. Sadly, between March 1997 and September 1999 there has been a decrease of 1.6 per cent. The overall fall in police strength in the year to March 1999, including seconded officers, was 0.6 per cent. That is the biggest annual fall since 1990.

Cuts in police numbers have created a real crisis in the police service. That crisis continues, and I should like to quote a few examples. In Merseyside, twice as many officers are leaving as are being recruited. In Staffordshire, there is a recruitment freeze, and there are warnings that 250 jobs will be lost as a result of a cut in the annual budget of £8 million.

A survey conducted by The Sunday Telegraph found that an area the size of an entire police force has been wiped off the map due to cuts in police numbers and budget pressures under Labour's term of office. The worries of many people were given voice by a senior officer in a northern English city, who was reported as saying: We could not possibly publicise the numbers. It would destroy public confidence and would be an invitation for every criminal and his dog to come here. My predecessor as Member of Parliament for Uxbridge, Sir Michael Shersby, was for many years the parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation. I remember attending Police Federation meetings at successive Conservative party conferences and listening to the speakers. They always gave a view of events that reflected the feelings of officers. Fred Broughton, the chairman of the Police Federation, has said: The hard fact is, despite Government reassurances that the fight against crime is still a top priority, the police service has witnessed the largest fall in actual police numbers since the crisis days of the mid-1970s. That worries me. Mr. Broughton continued: Every police station in this country is facing anger from its community. We in Hillingdon echo that feeling. He also said: Fewer officers, a rising workload and high levels of crime are combining to make the state of policing the worst I have ever known. Between March 1992 and March 1997, the number of officers in the Metropolitan police fell by 1,477. Between March 1997 and March 2000, officer numbers fell, approximately, by a further 1,132. Under a recent funding settlement, the Metropolitan police's budget will be cut in both cash and real terms. In 1999–2000, it received £1,743.9 million. In 2000–01, it will suffer a cut in cash terms of 0.7 per cent.—a real-terms cut of 3.13 per cent.

Crime in London is rising. Between October 1997 and September 1998, and between October 1998 and September 1999, the number of recorded crimes rose by 80,285, or 8.7 per cent. In January 2000, London street crime was more than twice the January 1999 level. Muggings rose by more than a third over the past year in comparison with the previous year.

It is not only the cut in budgets that is causing the problem. All London Members of Parliament will recognise that the Metropolitan police has a real problem with regard to recruitment and retention. The financial pressures of living in London are incredible, and low morale is also detrimental to recruitment. If police numbers are to be increased, it will be necessary to help police officers with the cost of living in London—not only through London weighting and accommodation, but through a real increase in salary. The Association of Chief Police Officers now appreciates that the Metropolitan police must be regarded as a special case.

The Police Federation has warned that a significant proportion of police officers are taking second jobs to boost their incomes. Some work as adult education teachers or nurses, while many others work as minicab drivers, couriers and pizza delivery drivers. That situation cannot continue.

I turn to Hillingdon, my local borough. The Hillingdon division of the Metropolitan police has an excellent record, for which I pay tribute to the previous borough commander, Alan Shave, and the current commander, Alan Matthews. The community is working well with the police and, for the first time in many years, there is a good working relationship with the local authority. We have an active and constructive police consultative group. All three Members of Parliament, who represent two political parties, work on an all-party basis and are highly supportive of the police's work. Yesterday, when the three of us met the Metropolitan police Commissioner to lobby him about local problems, it would have been difficult to tell that we were from different parties.

What is happening in Hillingdon is similar to what is happening in the rest of London. A look at the Hillingdon crime trends for the period from 1 April to 31 July 1999 gives some idea of the position. Street crime was up by 19 per cent. Motor vehicle crime was up by 18 per cent. All violent crime was up by 11 per cent. Burglary was up by 8 per cent. Total crime was up by 15 per cent. Clearly, more police personnel are needed to combat the current increases in reported crime. But what do we have? We have more reductions, with more planned.

The council tax payers of Hillingdon want to know why, in the past three years, their precept for the Metropolitan police has gone up by 36.29 per cent., yet they are getting fewer and fewer police officers for their money. Four police stations in Hillingdon are now closed to the public or operate restricted schedules, with opening hours that generally do not include weekends, bank holidays or any hour after 6 o'clock in the evening on any day. Only Uxbridge police station is open to the public for 24 hours a day.

In my constituency and the rest of the borough, there is more than a perception that police levels have become unacceptably low. There is an argument that a decrease in police numbers does not necessarily lead to an increase in crime, and that was true for a while in Hillingdon. Various measures, such as getting officers on sick leave back to work more quickly, meant that there could be some cuts without an increase in crime figures. However, it is now felt that enough is enough.

On the subject of sick leave, it would be a mistake to give the impression that many members of the police service are sitting at home when they should be at work. Last week, I called on a police unit in Hillingdon that is doing excellent work. The officer in charge is waiting for a kidney transplant. He is seriously ill and in a great deal of pain, yet he remains at his desk, working hard. We must dispel the myth that there are many more savings to be made by getting ill police officers back on duty.

The problem is that Hillingdon is regarded as a leafy suburb, and is not given priority. Other hon. Members may wish to raise the subject of rural crime, which has its own problems. I shall speak up for the suburbs, because they are inevitably squeezed in between the inner cities and the rural populations. We are told that the suburbs can be left alone to get on with it, and that they have no problems. However, they do have great problems, and if we are not careful, they will become worse.

It is easy to be glib and we, as politicians, can come out with glib expressions from time to time. It is easy to trot out well-worn phrases such as, "We have the best police force in the world". If we really believe that—as I do—we must give the police our support. There are people who nurture strong anti-police feelings. It would be timely to remind such people in the capital that, if they want more effective policing, they should take note of the advice given in The Mirror today. Just under three years ago, that newspaper gave different advice, when it urged the voters of Uxbridge to vote Labour. I hope that it will have more influence today than it did then.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I can see that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall conclude by quoting the chairman of the Police Federation, Glen Smyth, who has said: There is now a crisis. This has got to be solved, and if it is not solved, our ability to deliver is not going to be there. If the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary really want to arrest the rise in crime, they must first arrest the dramatic fall in police numbers.

9.48 am
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I am grateful for the chance to take part in this important debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) may have described Westminster Hall as a backwater in the maelstrom of House of Commons activity. However, I believe that it is a useful debating Chamber, in which issues can be debated sensibly and rationally. There can be an exchange of views, and we can lay out our concerns in the excellent manner shown by my hon. Friend. I congratulate him on securing the debate, in which he has skilfully raised the problem of police numbers with an appropriate emphasis on its impact on his constituency.

The issues of police numbers, police effectiveness, public confidence in the police and public confidence in the legal system have been given a great deal of prominence over the past two weeks following the trial of Mr. Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer convicted of killing a 16-year-old burglar and given a sentence of life imprisonment. Mr. Martin's property straddles the border between my constituency, South-West Norfolk, and that of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner).

When the incident took place last August, an enormous impact was felt in the local community of Emneth in south-west Norfolk. I was given the opportunity to describe that in an Adjournment debate that I was granted in October. It was and is impossible to overstate the volume and intensity of the impact. In the wake of the reaction to the outcome of Mr. Martin's trial, Ministers and other hon. Members have had the opportunity to judge whether what I said in October was an exaggeration.

Since August, I have avoided commenting on the case, the trial or the verdict. I have been a magistrate since 1973 and would be unlikely to make any comment on a case that may be the subject of an appeal and so may be sub judice.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I can perhaps help the right hon. Lady. The matter is sub judice because there is an appeal.

Mrs. Shephard

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to make it clear that it has not been my intention today or in the past to comment in the media on the case. For the avoidance of doubt, I add that the Norfolk police's handling of the matter was rapid and effective at a time when the force's resources were severely stretched by two other high-profile murder cases, one of which led to a conviction and another to an arrest. One of them took place a few miles from the site of the Tony Martin incident.

My argument throughout has been that if the public perceive that the police lack the resources to protect them and their property, they may be tempted to take the law into their own hands. I received a letter last month from the Swann family of Stowbridge. They stated: If the police cannot protect us (and the Chief Constable admitted that last night)— that was a reference to a television interview— then we must protect ourselves. Mr. Martin's case illustrates why that state of affairs and state of mind must be avoided.

That view is illustrated by one of many reports in the local and national press. The Eastern Daily Press of 26 April stated: in the PC's view, the shooting at Martin's…farm…could have happened within any Norfolk village because the policing cover was simply too thin to prevent it. Mr. Kevin Allen, a retired police officer, was quoted in the article as saying that The aftermath of what happened at Emneth Hungate poses a fundamental question about the way in which the force is run…do we want to police rural areas or don't we?…There is no police presence to act as a discouragement, and that's the issue in West Norfolk.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

Does my right hon. Friend believe that closures of police stations at night and the reliance on hotlines to towns that are often a long way away adds to the anxiety of people in rural areas? Is it right that Wisbech police station no longer opens in the evening?

Mrs. Shephard

I cannot comment on Wisbech police station, which is not in my constituency; indeed, it is in a different county. However, the public are not reassured when making 999 calls to find that their calls are routed around a county, and that the people to whom they subsequently speak are not necessarily clear about the location from which the call is made. That is not reassuring.

As I said in the Adjournment debate last October, the problem has not arisen overnight. Criminals are more mobile and have improved communications. The volume of traffic has increased, and, paradoxically, the success of CCTV in many of our market towns has driven crime into the countryside. Those are some of the factors involved. However, there is no doubt that there has been a reduction in police numbers under this Government over the past three years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge cited the reduction of 2,358 officers in the past three years which, translated into Norfolk terms, means that we have 50 fewer officers than three years ago. Norfolk has the smallest number of uniformed officers of any force in England. They do a good job with what they have, but they do not have the resources that they need.

Three times, to date, the Government have announced an increase in police numbers. They initially disputed the fact that numbers have fallen since they have been in power, but they now seem to accept what is an indisputable fact. I wonder whether the Minister will announce today that he intends to take notice of the report that his Department commissioned on rural sparsity in policing. As he knows, that is what rural police authorities, including Norfolk, are pressing for. For Norfolk, it would mean an additional £2.4 million for police on the beat.

In a letter to me, the new chairman of the Norfolk police authority states: The Home Office's own consultants indicated as far back as 1998 that the funding formula which distributes central Government grant to Police Authorities underestimates the true cost of patrolling rural areas. He refers also to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) made: It fails to take into account the additional expense of maintaining sufficient resources available to respond to urgent calls speedily enough to bring a sense of safety and security to people living in isolated villages…Norfolk bid for 90 further officers in the recent Home Office "challenge funding" but we were only allocated 66 over a three-year period, now possibly reduced to two years. Since 1997 total officer strength has fallen by 50. That is the view of the chairman of Norfolk police authority. The chief constable of Norfolk goes further. He is worried about perception. The Minister will say, and up to a point I agree with him, that no crude correlation exists between police numbers and the reduction of crime. He will also say, and we would all agree with him, that the management of police resources and the modernisation of their use are also vital. However, so is perception. The chief constable of Norfolk expressed his dilemma thus: The real difficulty for me is handling the fear of crime issues and confidence in local police. No matter how hard I try to describe how we allocate scarce resources, people are going to be sceptical because all they see are scarce numbers of police officers on the ground. That widely accepted perception is not confined to individuals. At the end of last month, Swaffham town council in my constituency contacted me, saying: We write to you to express our greatest concerns…Police presence is inadequate. We are told that there are 10 constables covering our area. This has to be stretched to allow for four shifts over each 365 days of the year. The Fenland Citizen, a newspaper based in Wisbech that covers a large area of my constituency, recently asked its readers two questions. One concerned the outcome of the Tony Martin trial, and I shall not quote it. The other question was, "Do you feel safe in your own house?" to which 1,050 people have responded to date—a respectable figure by MORI poll standards. Of those who replied, 91 per cent. said that they did not feel safe in their own house. In the 21st century, such a response does not show a satisfactory state of affairs. Whatever the Minister's response, I am sure that he shares that view.

The Government will say that the Opposition want to spend more on this and more on that, and that we must be aware of the implications that that would have on public spending. However, it is a matter of priorities. Norfolk is asking for an additional £2.4 million. Recently, the Government gave £100 million to help former mining communities. If that is the Government's priority, so be it, but let them say what their priorities are. If policing in rural areas and an increase in police numbers are not their priorities, let them be open about it.

I have described events in my constituency, but I have received hundreds of letters from people throughout the country, one of which was from a serving police officer in the Devon and Cornwall constabulary. He wrote: Whilst I can't condone the use of "More force than is necessary", this incident— the Martin case— was bound to arise, I would suggest anywhere in the country. It may or may not surprise you to know that such a large area as Okehampton has been in the past, solely policed by one officer, even Probationary female and male officers. Night and day patrols subjected to all that it implies, compounded with radios that can't be guaranteed to function due to the undulating countryside…It would appear to the rank and file officers, that senior management's time is occupied by constant appeasement to the Home office for good results figures. keeping the pressure groups that are constantly shouting that the Police are not Politically correct…happy…I hope that you do not think that I am an old embittered Police officer writing to you. I am not. It is my intention to extend a further two years beyond my time, but we lower rank officers feel so helpless at being unable to rectify the elementary shortcomings of the police service. I swore an oath for the "Protection of life and property, Prevention and detection of crime". It is becoming ever more difficult for me and my colleagues to keep that oath. I hope that somebody in your position can alter the wrong road the best Police Service in the world is now sadly taking. I am not in any position to change that road. The Minister is.

10.4 am

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I am glad of the opportunity to take part in the debate, as the matter of police numbers is not devolved to the National Assembly in Wales, unlike the situation in Scotland. I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge on raising the subject, which it is appropriate to focus on at this point.

I represent a scattered rural area; there are 93 villages, hamlets and towns within my constituency. Therefore, the rural dimension to which the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) referred is high on our agenda when considering the availability of police resources and police numbers. The rural dimension of the police service has recently received a considerable amount of attention, partly owing to the case that the right hon. Lady mentioned from her area. Therefore, it is appropriate that we give some time to that aspect, while recognising the equally important problems that arise in urban areas.

There is a strong feeling in the villages in my constituency that they do not enjoy the benefits of a truly community police service that they enjoyed a generation ago. That is not a criticism of the police; it is in some ways an inevitable consequence of the change in the patterns of life and, not least, of the rightful expectations of change that police officers have for their working patterns. In the old days, a police officer would live in the village and might be on call virtually 24 hours a day. That was unfair on the individual, who, as a consequence, might not have been able to buy his own house as he wished.

To address rightfully changing expectations, we need a significantly larger number of officers to give the same cover. We might need four or five officers to give the cover that one officer used to give in village police stations in the past. That clearly has a significant bearing on resources, and presents a challenge to police forces as to how to distribute their resources.

In my area, as in that of the right hon. Lady, we have seen the closure of village police stations. Villages, and small towns such as Nefyn in my constituency, are concerned about the possible loss of their police stations. If the Nefyn station is closed, there will not be a single police station on the northern side of the Llyn peninsula, from Caernarfon to Ynys Enlli—Bardsey island, for a distance of around 45 miles. There will not be a police station between Caernarfon and Bardsey island, and there is no station on Bardsey island either. That is clearly a matter of concern to Nefyn town council, but it is of equal concern to those who live in the area and to those who go there on holiday—the population of that area expands tremendously in the summer. One needs a police presence that is in line with the summer as well as the all-year-round demand.

There is a basic problem with sustaining locally based services and police numbers in areas such as mine. In north Wales—although technically it is in mid-Wales—Dolgellau is a centre for the police service, and yet the staffing levels are so inadequate that an appropriate inspector cannot be available 24 hours a day. Those who are arrested in the Dolgellau catchment area are taken up to Caernarfon, which is more than 40 miles away, and are held there overnight. That means that they are taken away from their families and, perhaps, held for two or three nights away from them and from the solicitors to whom they would normally turn in their communities. Their basic human rights are contravened as a direct consequence of the inadequate levels of staff available in centres such as Dolgellau and the smaller villages to which I referred.

The question of rurality has been placed on the political agenda because of recent events. The right hon. Lady referred to a report that I, too, wanted to bring to the attention of hon. Members in Westminster Hall. An independent report from ORH Ltd. was commissioned by the Home Office and was published on 30 April 1999, more than 12 months ago. That report considered the question of the additional costs associated with policing sparsely populated areas, and its conclusions were that a sparse population meant that costs were higher, because of the need for greater police numbers. The costs can be quantified and the current funding formula can be amended.

If I understand it correctly, the report set out three options. In the North Wales police force area, an additional £1.9 million would be needed to provide adequate strength for the police force to deal with the rural dimension. In the Dyfed Powys police force area, the figure would be £3 million. As the right hon. Lady mentioned, the report referred also to various English areas and specifically to Norfolk, which clearly suffers from the same kind of problems.

Will the Minister clarify whether the Government's recent comments on providing more resources for rural policing imply a full acceptance of the consultants' report? If so, has a decision been taken on how to amend the financial formula for distributing resources to take into account sparseness and rurality? When will the resources be available to the police forces that desperately need them?

If we are to avoid encouraging people in rural areas to resort to guns—heaven forbid, none of us wants that—we must build up their confidence in the police force's ability to protect them. That means giving police forces the resources that they need to do the job that we, as a community, ask them to do. It also means putting resources into schemes such as neighbourhood watch, which the police force in my area greatly appreciates. Incidentally, it is worth noting that the use of firearms in robberies dropped from 11.7 per cent. in 1991 to 4.8 per cent. in 1997. That is an acceptable trend, about which we are glad. We do not want that to be reversed as a consequence of the kind of tragic incident that occurred recently.

The fear of burglary is substantial. It is twice as high in Wales and England as it is, for example, in Spain. It is three times as high here as in Sweden, and five times as high as in Switzerland. That is the size of the challenge to build up the confidence that is needed. We know that notifiable offences have gone up by 50 per cent. from 1991 to 1998. Despite the increase in crime and the changing social patterns to which I referred, the police force in Wales and England has increased in size by only 25 per cent.—from 97,000 in 1971 to 126,000 in 1998. If we are to have the police presence that we need in rural and urban areas, we must be prepared to put our money where our mouth is. I hope that the Minister will make a positive statement when he winds up this debate.

10.12 am
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) was able to secure this debate, and I want to echo the central message of the contributions of the right hon. Members for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) and for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley).

Hon. Members representing all kinds of different communities—rural, urban or suburban—are saying that unless the public have confidence in the police force, they will believe that they must act independently. The letter to which the right hon. Lady referred epitomises the increasing perception across the country. I know each of the right hon. and hon. Members' constituencies to some degree—I know the constituency of the right hon. Member for Caernarfon better than the others—and, although I represent an entirely different kind of community, the same feeling is abroad. Unless we respond to that, we will be in severe difficulty. There will be much more crime because people will act in a criminal way to protect themselves.

I want to start by making one critical comment. I shall follow the right hon. Lady's example by not going into the details of the specific case. As a lawyer, I know that it would be unwise to discuss the merits of a particular case, which is now the subject of an appeal. I have been troubled to discover that, in response to the wider debate, people have given foolish and simplistic answers, including the leader of the Conservative party, who said the other day that the police should be freed from bureaucracy—we would all agree with that—and from race awareness seminars to spend more time catching criminals. I can see how that might appeal to the majority, and even how it might appeal to some of the police. However, if that is the leader of the Conservative party's idea of a responsible attitude in the light of all the recommendations of the Lawrence inquiry, his definition of "responsible" is not one that most people would share.

There is every argument to say that we must have enough police—I shall address that in a moment—but to believe that good policing can be achieved without an understanding of the whole community is not appropriate. There is probably no community in England and Wales that is not racially mixed to some degree, although the degree is greater in areas like mine than it is in Norfolk or north Wales.

The issue does not distinguish between urban and rural communities. I was brought up in rural Cheshire. We then moved to rural Glamorgan and then to rural Herefordshire, and I spent much of my family time in rural Meirionnydd. I understand the needs of those communities, but suburban Uxbridge or inner-city Southwark and Bermondsey are made up of communities—some small and some large—which all need to feel that they have their own policing. They all want to relate to the police service and feel that it is close to them.

The history of police strength over the past 10 years is not a comfortable subject. The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk rightly criticised the present Government; the last five years of the Tory Administration were equally uncomfortable on that issue. Before then, police numbers had risen. The Tory Government's final years were the precursor to what we have seen since then. In 1995, the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), promised 5,000 extra police officers. By 1997, the number was lower than at the time of the general election in 1992; instead of 5,000 extra, there were hundreds fewer.

Last year, at the Labour party conference, we had the famous speech from the Home Secretary, promising 5,000 extra police officers. However, when examined, the figures showed immediately that, because recruitment levels are, sadly, so low, police numbers at the next election will not even be back to what they were at the last election.

I accept that the Labour party did not come to office promising a specific number of extra police officers. Its specific pledge was to put more officers back on the beat, but that has not happened either. The Audit Commission—not politicians—makes it clear that the number of police officers on the beat has gone down. Its last report said that there were 1,000 fewer. That is where the public often perceive, in the first instance, whether there is satisfactory policing.

Mr. Heald

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Audit Commission's point was that constable numbers had increased throughout the period of the Government from 1992 to 1997? It said: It is significant that over the last year this trend of increases in constable numbers has begun to reverse. If the hon. Gentleman wants to be serious about the 1992–97 period, will he agree that the number of specials was up by 4,000 in that period, civilians by 2,000 and constables by 4,000?

Mr. Hughes

I shall not take issue with the hon. Gentleman on the fact that the numbers moved in that direction. He is right. I am simply saying that the public have seen two major trends—a reduction in police officers across the country and a reduction in constables on the beat. They want more police officers and more constables on the beat.

The difficulty is evidenced by figures published in The Observer on 9 April, in an article headed "Britain's hardest hit police force". In Suffolk, the number leaving from March to October 1999 was 46 and the number joining zero; in North Yorkshire, leaving 42, joined two; in Cleveland, leaving 80, joined nine; in Merseyside, leaving 85, joined 39; in Staffordshire, leaving 39, joined 20: in Sussex, leaving 178, joined 100; in Hampshire, leaving 145, joined 92; and in Greater Manchester, leaving 277, joining 169.

We are not recruiting to fill the gaps and, unless we address that question, people in the village communities of Norfolk or Hampshire, in suburban Uxbridge and in inner-city north Southwark and Bermondsey will not have the policing that they feel they need. The situation was reflected by the right hon. Member for Caernarfon, and I want to make some suggestions.

In the six months before September 1999, police numbers fell in 29 of the 43 forces in England and Wales, including the Met—in which there was a huge fall—and the forces in Hampshire, Devon and Cornwall, Merseyside and North, South and West Yorkshire. Rural and urban areas alike have been affected. The number of volunteer special constables went down by 3,300 between March 1997 and March 1999. If we exclude police pension money, which eats into the money available for policing, we find that 14 police forces had a cut in funding, in real terms, in the last financial year: Bedfordshire, City of London, Cleveland, Cumbria, Essex, Hertfordshire, Humberside, Lincolnshire, Merseyside, Sussex, Warwickshire, West Mercia, West Midlands and West Yorkshire.

The Audit Commission made it clear that, although the rate of public satisfaction is about 50 per cent. in terms of mobile police patrols and about 95 per cent. in terms of police responses to emergency calls, the rate for police foot patrols is 23 per cent. Less than a quarter of the public is happy with the bobby on the beat.

The Government allocated an additional £35 million for recruitment this year, but the policing of the millennium celebration cost £33 million, and that was not compensated. The money was eaten up in just one set of events throughout the country. There is no simple equation that states that we can reduce crime simply by adding more police but, for the reasons that the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk, the hon. Member for Uxbridge and I have given, if the police presence is not increased, the public will lose confidence in the police. I have never heard anyone argue that having fewer police means that we have a better chance of catching criminals. Having more police may not help us to do better, but having fewer is certainly not the way either.

We need to reverse the cuts and increase strength. Every community—in villages, towns and cities—ought to have its dedicated police officers. The Church of England, to use a rather odd example, serves the whole country and people in every parish know who their priest is. In the same way, there ought to be permanently dedicated officers who are always accessible and not distracted from that job.

When researching for this debate, I discovered a bizarre figure in an Audit Commission report from 1996, showing that, round the clock, only 5 per cent. of police strength is deployed on the streets, in cars or on foot. Only 5 per cent. of on-duty police officers are out and about in the community. That is not acceptable. We could increase the number of retained officers just as, in parts of the country, there is a retained fire service. Ministers should allocate more money to police services to increase the number of retained officers, as well as special constables. I agree with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) about that.

There is no simple separation between rural and urban issues. Of course, there should be a better service for those rural communities that are not being properly served at present, but the figures show clearly that more than half of property crimes and one third of the victims of those crimes come from one fifth of the population of England and Wales. That part of the population lives in lower-quality social housing where people are three times more likely than owner-occupiers to be the victims of personal crime and twice as likely to be the victims of property crime. Victims of repeat crime are most likely to be found where crime is concentrated.

I was recently in Dewsbury and Doncaster, parts of which were like the third world. They were derelict and it was as if no police had ever been there. The housing and community estates were strewn with rubbish and litter and felt abdicated, particularly the part of Doncaster that I visited. I met the police in Dewsbury who spend a huge amount of time dealing with the drug problem, but many people feel that they do not receive much service in their communities.

We must be realistic about the use of plant and resources, including police stations. Some good Audit Commission work has suggested that we should think more imaginatively about where we have a police presence. I was brought up in north Wales and the police house at Maentwrog was available to the community 24 hours a day. That may not be appropriate now but, in village communities, the police could be available not just where the shop or post office is but where the vicar or the pub is—

Mrs. Shephard

Or where the bank was.

Mr. Hughes

Absolutely, or in the village hall or parish hall. There are ways of sharing resources and plant, and the Audit Commission made some sensible recommendations. That is the route to take with the confidence of the public. I have never taken the view that police stations should never close, because that is unrealistic. Some police stations are now in the wrong place because communities have developed a long way away. The Minister is right that we need always to reduce paperwork, which is the bane of police officers' lives. The more paperwork that can be given to civilians, the better. Sickness must also be reduced.

I am sure that there is a future for sponsorship schemes. People used to be recruited to the services and to large companies such as ICI by payments to enable them to go to college in return for a specific number of years working in the services or for the companies. The police are ready for that and many youngsters could be recruited from all communities if they had that incentive.

I am completely clear that we must develop the community constabulary and warden scheme, as the Government have started to do. We need two tiers of policing. We need local community policing based on the local authority and people who work as park keepers, caretakers, school patrol people, traffic wardens and so on. They are the eyes and ears of neighbourhood watch and business watch. We also need police to deal with regional crime issues, the big dealers and so on. Unless we have both, the public will not perceive that anything is being done.

The transport police could be developed and transport providers could be given more responsibility to ensure that stations are safe. In London now, Mr. Grieve is examining murder and other serious crime and we need also some police to concentrate on persistent criminals. As in the Norfolk case and others, some people's names are always on the books with a list of charges and histories as long as your arm.

On London, the Minister should remove Metropolitan police funding and support from the general structure of Government funding, as the hon. Member for Uxbridge suggested. As the police service for the capital city, the Metropolitan police has a wholly different set of needs and obligations. It would be helpful to London's police and to the other 43 forces if London was not part of the same funding formula, but was funded separately. I support that argument for all sorts of reasons, of which the May day events are only the most recent.

We must allow for the greater cost of living and working in a capital city. That is not an argument against the rest of the country, but it is a fact that, whatever public service people work in, it costs more to buy a home in London. I know from where I live how prices are rising.

I am conscious that tomorrow is London election day. I hope that the voters of London will elect a mayor who does not want to be mayor of the world, as certain people seem to want to be. Some people want to take on global capitalism and to try to solve the Irish problem, as well as every other world problem. I hope that the people elect someone who wants to concentrate on London issues only. The candidates of the three main political parties, but not the independent candidate, come into that latter category, and Susan Kramer would do the job best.

I hope that London voters do not elect someone who will be continually distracted from the issues facing the electors of this great city; that would not be a service to London or to the London communities which, like rural communities, want a larger police service in which they can feel greater confidence.

10.30 am
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

I was going to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on having secured the debate, but I am not so sure now that it has given the Liberal Democrats a platform to make an election broadcast. To be serious, it was a good debate to instigate. The problems experienced by cities and by rural areas have been highlighted; I am not sure that they are so different.

I know the constituency of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) quite well—not least because he trounced me in the 1987 general election—as I have friends there. There is concern that the Rotherhithe police station will be put on to short hours and that policing will be based at Walworth. That is the sort of problem that one gets in areas such as Cambridge or south-west Norfolk; the police station at Wisbech closes in the evening, for example, and people have to telephone a distant place to get the police to come. It all creates an atmosphere of concern, lack of confidence and genuine fear.

I suppose that the Government have to put on a bold face—the Minister has delivered sweet words on the subject—but what my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge said about Hillingdon, and what my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) said about her constituency, should give the Government pause for thought. The public are not stupid, and when they read headlines like "Demoralised Met Can't Fill 400 posts", "Met Shuts 23 Police Stations at Night", "Tax Strike as Police Cuts Anger Residents"—that refers to Finchley—and "Huge Rises in Street Crime", they ask themselves whether that is just media sensationalisation. They then go down to the local police station and find that it is not open in the evening, or they notice that there are not the numbers of police out and about that there used to be. That creates a climate in which people are genuinely worried.

We cannot discuss the details of the Martin case, but I have spoken to people in my constituency—it is not the kind of rural area that the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) represents, but it still has pretty remote spots—and people there are worried that a 16-year-old will burgle their property late at night and that the police will not be able to get there on time. It is not electioneering or politicking to point out that that is happening because the Government have made a terrible mistake in allowing police numbers to run down.

Between 1992 and 1997, the Conservative Government stripped out some of the middle ranks of the police service, and the overall numbers of police can be said to have fallen. However, as the Audit Commission recently pointed out, the number of police constables rose year on year. The front-line crime fighters who were seen to be doing the job increased throughout the years of the Conservative Government, as did the number of specials. Specials are very important in terms of dealing with crime on Friday nights and at times of pressure.

The number of civilian staff also increased, enabling police to get out and about. In 1992–97, the number of specials was up 4,000, the number of civilians was up 2,000, and the number of constables was up 2,500. The Government have reversed that situation, and the Audit Commission is right to criticize that. The number of police has fallen by 2,300 which includes, for the first time since 1990, a fall in the number of constables out and about. The number of civilian staff has remained at 53,000 throughout the period, and the number of specials has fallen by 3,500. It is not surprising that people are beginning to notice that there are fewer officers.

There is a problem with the recruitment of officers, especially in London where 400 officers for whom there is funding have not been recruited. Hendon needed 1,300 new recruit officers in the past year but did not have anything like that number. It had only two out of every three officers that it needed. The problem may be about money, but it is also about the fact that officers feel insulted and demoralised. They feel that criminals who are let out before the end of their minimum periods then re-offend.

The Government have turned the job of policeman from one that was held in high regard to one that people have concerns about. Even officers who join the Metropolitan police do not stay. The number of probationers—officers in their first two years with the Metropolitan police—has fallen by 353 in the past nine months. The position in London is of great concern, but the rural situation is also worrying. The Minister knows the eastern region well, and the number of officers there has fallen by 357 since his Government took power. There are 46 fewer officers in Bedfordshire and 30 fewer in Cambridgeshire. In Norfolk, numbers are down 50; in Lincolnshire, 85; in Suffolk, 20; and in Essex, 126. The number of officers needed can be judged easily from the recent crime-fighting fund bid for the extra numbers that the Government are prepared to fund. Nationally, 8,220 were requested and only 5,000 were given. In the Eastern region, 397 were given but 556 were wanted, so 160 officers fewer than needed were provided in that region alone. The result of that is fear in rural areas.

People are worried also about the spin and fiddling of the figures that the Government go in for. The Government often say that they shall provide 5,000 extra officers. At first, we all thought that there would be an extra 5,000 police, but it does not mean that at all. It means that they will recruit 5,000 on top of the existing plans. All the arithmetic was blown to pieces after the Home Secretary's conference speech.

If the Government keep saying that police numbers do not matter and have no direct relationship to the detection of crime, why are they so desperate to persuade us that their 5,000 extra officers over the next two years will make all the difference? The reason is that they have made a terrible mistake in running down police numbers and are now trying to rescue the situation.

We know that 6,000 officers a year are lost through natural wastage, and that the police wanted to recruit 12,000 officers over three years. They have added another 5,000 over three years, which is a net loss of about 1,000 officers over the period. Recently, the police have said, "No, it will not be three years. We intend to recruit those 5,000 officers over two years." We have asked for the revised number of recruits for each force, because we want to know where they will go over the next two years. But what happens? We are just told, "We are having discussions. We shall make a further announcement as soon as details of the accelerated scheme have been finalised." Why are the Government announcing a scheme when they have not finalised the detail? When will the details be published?

I come now to the Milburn letter. The Minister will remember that the then Chief Secretary wrote a letter shortly before the Labour party conference when the recruitment of the 5,000 officers was announced. He said that police training schools would be operating at more than full capacity and he was worried that they would not be able to train that number of officers over three years. The Government are now saying that they will produce those officers over two years, but how on earth will they manage that? Will the Minister say whether the training schools have that extra capacity? How will it be achieved?

My other worry concerns the third year. If the new officers are to be provided over two years, there will still be the natural wastage—6,000 officers will be gone in the third year. What will happen then? Or is such intended action just a gimmick running up to the next general election? Will the Government put in a few extra officers in the two-year period and then, after the election, have a situation like a cliff face, with numbers going right down again? Is it true that, in the third year, wastage will outstrip recruitment and the numbers will fall back again?

When the Minister announced that he would allow the recruitment of the 5,000 officers over three years, he said that £35 million would be provided in the first year for the first tranche of officers. Yet the Budget statement suggested that, in order to double recruitment in the year 2000–01, the Govt would provide a further £11 million. How can they obtain a doubling in the figures for half the money?

Mrs. Shephard

Ask the spin doctors.

Mr. Heald

Yes. The fact is that the public have rumbled the Government and they want real action. They want delivery, not more words.

The chief constable of Humberside explained how he felt after only 29 per cent. of the officers that he wanted in the crime fighting fund bid were granted. He said that it was a "body blow" for the force and that the announcement meant fewer officers to provide the service that the public want. He said that, in slashing the budget, the Government had ignored the views and concerns of local people. Glen Smyth made the simple point that we must have feet on the beat to put hands on collars. I cannot put it much simpler than that.

The Government should take seriously the recent survey of 6,000 police officers that showed that more than three quarters of them felt that morale was low. The same survey found that 71 per cent. would take another job if it were offered to them. That survey compares well with the survey carried out by the Fenland Citizen, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk referred, which showed that 1,050 people—91 per cent. of the respondents—did not feel safe in their own homes.

Is it not time that the Government restored the numbers to the level that they inherited, took away from police officers many of their time-wasting jobs and looked at imaginative initiatives—such as that being launched today by the shadow Home Secretary—which would allow police officers in rural areas to work in shops? The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey agreed that that was a good idea.

Why are the Government not coming up with such imaginative ideas? Are they stuck, enjoying the Whitehall world? Are they not considering how to protect people and meet the essential contract that the citizen has with the state to be protected and free from fear?

10.44 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke)

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing the debate, which has generally been constructive and positive. I welcome it and I hope to respond in that spirit.

We have debated these issues on the Floor of the House, such as in the debate on police funding on Thursday 3 February, in which several hon. Members representing London constituencies spoke. A full discussion of the issues involved has taken place. I agree with the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), who approved the Westminster Hall style of debate. That was right and positive.

I shall respond to the debate by making a couple of points about funding overall, and I will then deal specifically with the point about London. I shall deal specifically with rural sparsity, and I will then make some general points in response to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire about police numbers and bobbies on the beat.

The Government's overall spending plans for the three years beginning April 1999 were announced in July 1998. Under our plans, an extra £1.24 billion is being provided for police in England and Wales between 1999 and 2002. For the year 2000–01, the current year, the total amount of police authority spending to which the Government are prepared to contribute their share of funding will be £7.35 billion. That represents an increase in police funding of £212 million, or about 3 per cent., over the year 1999–2000.

I acknowledge the point that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) made—I made the point in the debate on police grants—about how pensions take a significant chunk of spending, and that that varies among different authorities. He is right to raise that issue. We are actively considering the matter at the moment, because not only does it take a chunk of spending away from police authorities, it impacts on different police authorities in a highly variable way, simply because of the percentages involved. I have received several representations from hon. Members, chief constables and police authorities about pensions. I shall not dwell on the matter, but I wanted to acknowledge the point.

We recognise the costs of the Metropolitan police and, in this year's funding settlement, the force was allocated an extra £182 million. I pay tribute to the work of the Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, who has put support for front-line policing at the heart of his plans to reorganise the Metropolitan police. The decision to streamline the Met and remove the area tier of management is enabling the Met to transfer resources and to maintain police numbers managed locally. Those officers are in turn supported by all the other officers who provide pan-London and specialist services.

The hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) mentioned Southwark. I met the Southwark division a few weeks ago, and discussed in detail issues such as Rotherhithe police station. The changes being effected in Southwark will increase local police presence throughout the borough. Some proposals have aroused controversy, especially in the constituency of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, but the general effect is part of the overall drive to have more policing on the front line.

During this year, the Commissioner intends to transfer funding for 445 posts from central Metropolitan police budgets directly to those responsible for divisional policing, thus moving people into the divisions of London. Priority will be given to filling divisional vacancies. That will put an additional 300 officers on the street by the end of the financial year. Specific increases resulting from the crime fighting fund will be targeted at boroughs that face the most serious challenges in terms of burglary and street crime.

Target numbers for police officers for 23 borough commands will be unchanged, although that will enable many to increase their numbers by filling vacancies. The initial allocation of funding under the crime fighting fund will enable an additional 242 officers to be utilised in the London boroughs that most need them.

Although this debate is about police numbers in general, I shall refer briefly to the points made about recruitment issues in London. As a result of what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in his Budget statement, Metropolitan area pay issues are being considered through the standard structures and procedures, about which I cannot comment here.

Mr. Randall

The Minister said that resources would be targeted on those boroughs in most need. Was he referring to boroughs with the largest number of incidents, or those with the largest increase in incidents such as burglary?

Mr. Clarke

I cannot answer that question directly, as it is a matter for the Commissioner. However, I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman on how that will be defined. The Commissioner will seek intelligently to focus on those areas in greatest need. I shall discuss whether they are defined by the increase point or by the level point, and write to the hon. Gentleman in due course.

Rural issues were raised by the right hon. Members for South-West Norfolk and for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley). I am familiar with those issues. Although my constituency is not rural, it is in the middle of a rural county in which the issues raised by the right hon. Lady have been current, as she is more than aware, in the media and more generally. As she said, she raised the issue in an Adjournment debate on 19 October last year. Perhaps I could apologise to her, as I did at the time, for not being able to respond to that debate. I am delighted to do so now.

Much of the subject was discussed yesterday in an Adjournment debate secured by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner). I do not intend to go over the whole territory again. I want to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk for stating so clearly that she has confidence in the Norfolk constabulary. As I said yesterday, I felt that the statement by the right hon. Lady and the other Conservative Members representing Norfolk—which implied a lack of confidence in the constabulary—was damaging and wrong. I am delighted that she has put the record straight, and focused on the important political issues.

Mrs. Shephard

The Minister must not be carried away by the spin that is put on specific words. In the statement to which he refers, I and my three colleagues from Norfolk made it absolutely clear that we were worried—as, clearly, were our constituents—that the police do not have the resources to do the job, and therefore are at risk of losing the confidence of the public. It is not because of the police, but because they are perceived to be thinly resourced. I have made that clear this morning, and that is what we sought to highlight in our press release.

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful for that clarification, which repeats what the right hon. Lady said in her speech. I am responsible for spinning many things, but I am certainly not responsible for the spin put on the statement made by the right hon. Lady and her colleagues to the media in Norfolk and elsewhere. All I can say is that a perception is abroad, which she has helpfully knocked on the head, that a lack of confidence in the Norfolk constabulary might have been expressed. I am delighted by the absolute clarity that she offered in her speech and her intervention.

On sparsity, I shall not repeat what I said yesterday, except to say that I take it extremely seriously. I have met authorities and discussed the issue fully. The argument has power and force, which was expressed in both speeches on the matter this morning. It is being addressed in the context of the comprehensive spending review, the first year of effect of which—in answer to the question posed by the right hon. Member for Caernarfon—is 2001–02. I cannot prejudge the conclusions of the comprehensive spending review; that is a matter for the Chancellor and for the Government as a whole. However, as I have often said before, the argument has force, and those who make the argument on the basis on which it has been made today are justified in doing so.

The Government will publish a White Paper on rural communities later this summer, and I am optimistic that there will be a chapter in it specifically on rural crime. Several significant issues raised in the debate need specific attention. I agree that there are points of common experience that are shared across the country, but I believe, too, that there are issues specific to rural areas that need to be addressed specifically.

The hon. Members for North-East Hertfordshire and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey referred to what Glen Smyth said about a feeling abroad. In my view, that relates to the colloquial phrase "bobbies on the beat", or the extent to which there is a police presence in a community.

There are four factors to the question of bobbies on the beat, the first of which concerns police numbers. The Government have never taken the view that numbers do not matter; they do, but that is only one factor in terms of police presence. The second factor is technology, the third is the abstractions of the criminal justice system and the fourth is the development of partnership. Those are matters for the chief constable of each area and his authority, but they are all important considerations in increasing the numbers of bobbies on the beat.

I will deal with those factors briefly, one by one. Police numbers have fallen in five of the last six years, despite what is said. Overall police numbers fell under the previous Government from 128,290 to 127,158 between March 1993 and March 1997, which represents the loss of more than 1,000 officers. We are responding to that situation, and the Home Secretary announced in his Labour party conference speech last year the recruitment of 5,000 officers. We have more recently announced that that recruitment will be brought forward from a three-year period to a two-year period, as a result of the additional resources announced by the Chancellor in his Budget.

I can tell the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire that the original proposal before the Budget was that, for the three years beginning 2000–01, we would have 1,000 officers, and then 2,000 and 2,000. Now, the total of 5,000 will be spread over two years instead of three and, so far, we think that the number of officers will be doubled in the first year. That would mean that there would be 2,000 officers in the first year and 3,000 in the second.

To be frank, we want to increase that first-year number from 2,000, and we are actively considering the number to which we can increase it. Instead of 2,000 officers in the first year, followed by 3,000 in the second, there might be 2,500 in each year or 3,000 in the first and 2,000 in the second. For exactly the reasons that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—training facilities and resources—we are discussing recruitment with the chief constables, the police authorities and the training people. We intend to make an announcement on those discussions shortly. The effect will be to accelerate significantly the recruitment of extra officers in every force, which will be widely welcomed.

The point that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire made about the third year will be discussed as part of the overall comprehensive spending review for 2002–03. We are discussing what the appropriate levels of funding for extra officers will be, in the context of that review. However, I know he will understand that I cannot say anything about that until the comprehensive spending review is concluded.

Another important question is that of civilian numbers. As the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk said, in Norfolk there was a reduction of 49 police officers between March 1997 and September 1999, although there was an increase over the same time of 57 civilians. That is not untypical; such a distinction has occurred in many forces, precisely because of the operational decisions taken by the police about the best way in which to use their resources. The previous Government rightly decided to take those responsibilities away from the Home Secretary and give them to chief constables.

I agree with the points made about retained and special officers; we are considering that for the comprehensive spending review. I must conclude because my time is short, but I would like to continue on another occasion. It is important to recognise also that the issues of technology, the criminal justice system and the hon. Member of developing partnerships all have a massive impact on the number of bobbies on the beat. We should give those issues at least as much attention as police numbers.

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